Sunday, October 26, 2014

Diary of a Country Priest

Diary of a Country Priest is Robert Bresson’s fourth film. But it is also his first real film: one in which nearly every aspect has been catered to his stringent, ascetic view of life. Its story – that of a Christ-like but small-time country parish priest – could have easily become the stuff of melodrama (indeed at the time of its release that was what Hollywood had become famous for with films like these). Bresson, however, converts it instead to a plaintive, heart-searing story: the tragedy of a man who tries to rise up, to be recognised and thanked by all those he serves, but whose only end due to his own frailties, doubts and neglect can only be death.

Based on a novel by French writer Georges Bernanos, the plot, from beginning to end, records the descent of its main character, a nameless priest. Claude Laydu, who plays the priest of a village called Ambricourt, was hailed at the time as the first ever “actor-model”: a term often used to describe Bresson’s actors in general. Looking at him we are convinced that he is nothing but: he is the only man unshaken by emotion or rage, and everyone else around him, including a senior priest, criticizes him while they go on with their everyday sins and frailties. The excesses of all those around him are in stark contrast to his feeble, Christ-like faith.

Neglectful of his own health (it is only much later revealed what sickness he was ailed with), even his confined diet – dry bread and wine (symbols of the Eucharist) – are subject to relentless disapproval (indeed some even consider him a drunkard). What is needed now is one unlucky incident that will be misunderstood by all and drive him to his end: which comes in the form of a proud Countess who, before her death, is preached upon and “converted” by the priest. Everyone misinterprets him: even her husband criticises him (never mind he’s a priest, they seem to think), and at the end, all he can do while dying is sit by his friend – also a thin, frail man – who was once in the seminary where he had been, but now works at an apothecary.

To this story come various other characters – the Countess’ daughter, a wild girl called Seraphita who the priest pities, an atheist doctor who dies midway through, and the cousin to Louise. This last character figures in perhaps the most moving sequence in the entire film, where the priest, walking to the Station to visit the Doctor, is taken on a ride on his motorbike. For the first time in the film we see him smile: we hear his voice off-screen as the priest writes in his “diary” (the entire film, until the end when he loses his strength, consists of the priest’s entries in it being read out to us, revealing his thoughts and feelings), and we are moved by his almost nostalgic reverie as he reminisces on this moment as being his most youthful.

But deeper undercurrents are flowing: he also thinks of it as a premonition to his end – and in the city, the expression on his face changes immediately, when the doctor diagnoses what really is his sickness (“I thought it had been tuberculosis,” he later thinks: but in reality it is an incurable, more painful ailment). The final image – of a cross fading out while his friend “reads” his letter to the senior priest telling him of his death – is utterly symbolic: as though this Christ-like figure, in the form of a nameless priest, almost reached sainthood and resurrection, but who by the frailties and ravages of everyone around him was stopped, until failure outdid him in death.

What can move one the most is how the entire story is told from his angle: we are witness to his intentions and motives, and all those who misunderstand him or harbor him a grudge are always sidelined, always witnesses to what he’s doing from their angle (Louise, the countess’ daughter, spreads rumours that her mother’s death was hastened by his preaching after seeing them through a window – she never actually hears them). At one point the senior priest chastises him for his weakness – “they made men of the Church then,” he says sadly, “Now they send us choir-boys.”) Lost, with no set purpose, but still retaining his faith, he dies: disgracefully to others, but humbly to us. In the end we are left repeating an oft-quoted line from the film: “All is Grace.” And Robert Bresson, in his study of a simple country priest, concocts one of the most Christian, yet universal, films of all time.